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This issue of CDTL Brief on Engaging Students features articles by colleagues and a student on how to engage students in the learning process at different levels.

May 2009, Vol. 12 No. 2 Print Ready ArticlePrint-Ready
Encouraging Youth Engagement in the Public Square
Dr Tan Seow Hon
Faculty of Law

The hopeless apathy of our youths is an urban myth. In our students’ worlds, such as the blogosphere, they feel strongly about some issues and energetically engage one another, even as some may seem indifferent in our classes.

A motivational speaker has suggested that employers who grumble about their employees’ lack of motivation should observe what sort of persons their employees are in their other pursuits. After work, employees who looked ready to go home and crash come alive when they get into their sports gear. Most teachers, too, discover students are different outside the classroom.

The surprising insight that most people are not unmotivated ‘by nature’ has encouraging implications. If we can challenge our students to redraw the boundaries of their worlds to include the classroom, we could stretch their capacities. We have to begin by making the classroom less alien to the students, and by believing that their lives are significant, that they can go on to impact others powerfully, and that we can make a difference to their lives.

I teach two modules in the Faculty of Law which allow me to encourage students to make a difference in debates in the public square that ultimately affect public decisions and law-making: LC1002B “Introduction to Legal Theory”, a first year core subject, and LL4404 “Jurisprudence”, an upper year elective. I get students to think about how law is related to justice, morality, liberty and politics, and encourage students to reflect upon their future roles in the legal process. What is the legitimate basis of law in a pluralist society? In making legal arguments as lawyers, should they question the justice of particular laws? What influence can they have in the law-making process?

Philosophical courses, especially in a professional school, are reputably difficult and abstract. This may be due in part to the pragmatic tastes of the average Singaporean, who wants what she learns to be directly applicable in her future work. Further, many readings are difficult to master as the language is dense, or the contexts in which the issues arise belong to another era.

I endeavour to help students realise that abstract issues may be concretised in culturally current contexts. Where equivalent local debates are available, I require local readings in addition to those coming from other jurisdictions. For example, the Report of the Committee on Homosexual Offences and Prostitution from the United Kingdom in the 1950s is a classic reference in jurisprudence texts in England, but our parliamentary debates on similar laws are a more familiar topic for students. I aim to demonstrate how one’s opinions on the matters covered in the course are relevant in specific issues debated in the public square in Singapore. An example is the current debate on euthanasia. Do people have the right to decide when and how to die? Is this a question of personal liberty? On what basis should countries regulate this?

I participate in the public square by writing commentary pieces in the local newspaper, The Straits Times. I have written on topics that engage philosophy such as the role of religion in pluralist societies1 and the objectivity of morals in the postmodern world,2 and commented on laws relating to same sex partnerships3 and gambling.4 Pedagogical reasons aside, I hope to make philosophy accessible to the general public, influence public opinion (and the views of decision-makers in society) on particular issues where I believe that knowledge of philosophy is useful in shedding light on the interests at stake, and test my opinions as I follow the debate that ensues. Shortly after I wrote a piece on abortion5 which was hotly debated in the public square, for example, questions were raised in parliament6 on the government’s stance towards abortion laws.

I require relevant readings of these articles in my courses, and encourage my students to write. In Academic Year 2006/2007, two students taking LC1002B wrote to The Straits Times Forum during the reading week just before their examinations.7 In subsequent years, I included such public square participation as a component of the assessment of ‘class participation’ for my courses. Apart from gaining points by speaking up in class or online, in LC1002B for example, students may write to the press or some equivalent media. Class participation counts for 30 per cent of their overall grade. They are rewarded for submission of relevant letters which are assessed for the degree of connection with the subject matter of the course, without a need for publication as the latter may be an editorial decision.

Rewarding students in this manner is useful for several reasons: Firstly, as students think about issues in the public square, the classroom is connected with the ‘real’ world, demonstrating philosophy’s daily relevance; second, I draw upon contexts familiar to the students, making them more comfortable with the otherwise abstract subject matter; third, I harness students’ continued encounters with public square issues which will trigger their continued thinking and talking; finally, my teaching achieves practical impact as my students take what they learn into the ‘real’ world.

Numerous articles written by my students have been published.8 They have informally thanked me for helping them take the first step in participating in the public square, as well as appreciated it in official student feedback on the course. One student remarked on the inclusion of current issues:

By including current affairs in our readings, she has allowed us to bridge the gap between abstract theories of law and reality. This allows us to grasp the difficult theories better. Her inclusion of controversial topics and constant challenge to us to think critically about the issues around us rather than accept them at face value has helped cultivate an analytical mindset for me.

Not all students will continue participating when assessment is over, but some will. Some would not have begun writing without the carrot of marks. If some become involved citizenry who care about issues around them, I am heartened that the course assessment facilitated their baby steps and helped in the cultivation of a habit of civic participation. May they value integrity and find the courage to put their views to the test and stand up for what they truly believe in.


1. Giving voice to the religious, The Straits Times, October

2. True believers or moral absolutists, The Straits Times, November 15, 2004; It’s all     right to be wrong, sometimes, The Straits Times, May 5, 2005.

3. Redefining marriage: Where to draw the line? The Straits Times, July 30, 2007.

4. Free will’s a gamble, The Straits Times, November 29, 2004.

5. Time for Singapore to relook abortion law, The Straits Times ,July 24, 2008.

6. Questions raised by Mr Christopher de Souza and Mr Siew Kum Hong, “Abortions and     Adoptions”, Oral answers to questions,Parliament No. 11, Session No. 1, Volume No.     84, Sitting No. 19 (August 27, 2008).

7. Justify why gay acts should remain criminal, Straits Times Forum, May 1, 2007; ‘Gay     acts harm no one’ argument Straits Times Forum, May 3, 2007.

8. Do not forsake the ideals of going into law, The Straits Times Forum—Online Story,     April 25, 2008; SDP’s unsolicited visit: NTU management’s ban on student media     coverage, The Straits Times, October 9, 2008; Euthanasia: Should doctors not be     influenced by their personal beliefs and morals? The Straits Times Forum—Online     Story, November 4, 2008; Sex education: Letter writer was not neutral, The Straits     Times, November 10, 2008; Don’t scrap exams, Today, February 6, 2009; Allow     judges more leeway in sentencing, The Straits Times, March 9, 2009; Pro-payment,     The Straits Times, March 27, 2009; Law’s purpose to maximize scarce land, Today,     April 10, 2009; Give a more holistic view of euthanasia, The Straits Times Forum—    Online Story, April 14, 2009; Scholarship holders are only human, The Straits Times     Forum—Online Story, April 14, 2009; Hawker centre hygiene, not air-con, is the main     issue, The Straits Times Forum—Online Story, April 15, 2009; Focus on grades      makes tuition so important, The Straits Times Forum—Online Story, April 15, 2009;     Does this signal a shift in public policy? The Straits Times, April 16, 2009; If they’re     unwilling to work for free, I don’t see how they can complain, The Straits Times, April     16, 2009; Euthanasia robs terminally ill and their loved ones of precious moments,     The Straits Times Forum—Online

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Inside this issue
Encouraging Youth Engagement in the Public Square
Designing Interactive Spaces for Teaching and Learning
Make Large Classes Engaging
With ‘Quick-ins’
Learning Spaces
Maximising Opportunities for
Experiential Learning at NUS